Montreal Sourp Hagop school has welcomed 126 Syrian children over the last year

Montreal Sourp Hagop school has welcomed 126 Syrian children over the last year

Palig Hamalian

For Syrian children, a delicate return to school



This is the second in a series to be published over the next year as the Montreal Gazette shadows the Hamalians — Anna and Ohannes, their children Palig and Harout, and grandmother Sita — as they start a new life in Canada.

Is French easy? Asks the teacher, to the 20 kids in her welcome class.

Oui! Scream the kids.

Would you like more homework?

Oui! They shout in unison.

Would you like more dictées?

Oui! They roar.

It’s possible they didn’t all understand the question.

Most of these kids, ages 7 to 12 and among the latest Syrian refugees to arrive in Quebec, have only been learning French since September.

It’s only the second day of school for little Yervant, seated in the front row, with his curly brown hair and big green eyes, whose hand shoots up at every occasion.

But it’s also possible Yervant and his classmates really do like the homework, dictées and class participation, having been deprived of school on their journey from war-torn Aleppo or Damascus to Lebanon or Jordan and all the way to Ville St. Laurent.

What are these? Continues the teacher, flapping her arms. Wings!

And what do I have here? She asks, making the international sign for that thing on the rear end of a squirrel or horse. A tail!

“Some have never been to school or have not been for one or two years,” explains Geneviève Fournier, a teacher at Sourp Hagop school in Ville St. Laurent. “So, they have to develop the appropriate behaviour and learn how to be organized. But they are like little sponges, they learn so fast!”

It’s a steep learning curve for everyone.

This is Fournier’s first year teaching a classe d’acceuil, or welcome class, a “mission” she signed up for to help alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis, brought home by the images of the body of a boy washed up on a beach in Turkey.

And it’s only the second year that the Sourp Hagop school has been offering the classes for newcomers.

One of two Armenian schools in the city, Sourp Hagop has welcomed 126 Syrian children over the last year, most of them from Aleppo, organized into four welcome classes – two at the elementary level and two in high school.

Harout Hamalian, sitting in the third row, has been in Madame Geneviève’s class for about two months.

His family left Aleppo in Dec. 2013, after their home, caught in the crossfire between government and opposition forces, was destroyed by a hand-made bomb.

After waiting in limbo in Lebanon for 18 months – where Harout, 8 and his sister Palig, 11 started school in English – they arrived in Montreal on Sept. 22, sponsored by Harout’s aunt, Nelly.

Two months later, Harout’s father, Ohannes, a diamond setter in Aleppo, is trying to start a new jewellery business with a partner in Montreal, and Harout’s mother, Anna, is serving Armenian pizzas at a restaurant downtown while she waits for government French classes to begin.

Palig, meanwhile, has already moved up to the advanced welcome class. French will be her fourth language, after Armenian, Arabic and English.

Madame Geneviève’s kids are paving the way for so many others to follow in their footsteps, as the government of Canada tries to fulfill its promise to bring in 25,000 refugees by the end of February. But just how prepared other schools will be to welcome new students remains to be seen.

The portrait in Quebec

The Quebec education ministry can’t provide any official numbers about how many Syrian children are likely to attend school in the province next year.

Quebec has said it will bring in at least 3,650 refugees this year and the same number next year, with about 85 per cent of them — or about 6,200 altogether — coming to Montreal, Longueuil and Laval.

But that number could increase if the federal government requests that Quebec take in more refugees and provides the funding for them.

Julie White, the press attaché for Quebec Education Minister François Blais, said the ministry still has no idea how many children will be among the refugees.

Of the immigrants and refugees who settle in Canada every year — about 250,000 total — 6,000 of those newcomers are refugees under the age of 18.

“There is already a framework for welcoming children,” White said. “There are always a lot of new students to integrate, and there have been other waves of refugees before. But we’re not there yet,” she said, adding that she thinks few if any will start school by January.

“Our priority is to get them here and find housing for them.”

She said the ministry would be working with the school boards, “which will have all the resources necessary.”

Without the numbers, ages or geographical distribution of the children who will be arriving in their classrooms, school boards can only prepare so much.

The Commission scolaire de Laval is planning to welcome between 400 and 700 Syrian students.

The Commission scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys, whose territory includes Ville St. Laurent, where many of the city’s 17,000 Syrian-Canadians live, already has about 100 welcome classes every year with newcomers from around the world.

It is waiting to see how many more classes and teachers will be added next year, and at what level, said spokesperson Barbara Blondeau.

As for the Commission scolaire de Montréal, it is calculating that it will have to hire about 50 more teachers – based on 7 to 8 teachers for every 100 students – to be able to welcome 600 to 700 Syrian students.

Given the particular “clientèle,” to use the Quebec government vernacular, and all they have been through to get here, school boards will also need to rehire specialists, notably psychologists, after six years of government cutbacks.

 Trauma in the classroom

To see the children’s smiling, eager faces or watch them play soccer at recess – 99 per cent of the boys want to play soccer, says the principal Léna Kadian – you wouldn’t know they are from Syria or that they are refugees at all.

It helps that at Sourp Hagop they can speak to some of the staff in their mother tongue, and that the hot meals in the kitchen taste and smell like home.

Today it’s kefta kebabs with puréed potatoes.

But for many of the children, the scars of war and symptoms of trauma are visible just beneath the surface.

“On the first day it snowed, I asked students whether they thought they would get used to the snow,” Kadian explained.

“One boy said to me, ‘Madame. Here, it’s snow. Over there, it’s bombs that are falling.’”

For some children, the signs of trauma can be subtle.

The younger ones talk very loudly, cry very easily or can’t resolve conflicts, Kadian says.

Then, there are children who hide under their desks whenever a plane flies overhead.

At École Alex Manoogian – the other Armenian school, which started taking in Iraqi refugees six years ago – there was one nine-year-old who needed to leave class every half-hour to go check on his six-year-old brother, to make sure he was okay, just like he used to do in Syria.

Unlike the children from Iraq, where there was an actual frontline outside of residential areas, Syrian children often experienced the war on their doorstep, or on their way to school, said Sébastien Stasse, the principal at Alex Manoogian, which is also in Ville St. Laurent.

“One of my students was shot in the leg by a sniper as he walked to his grandmother’s house one morning.

“These are the realities we have to face.”

Stasse has found an Armenian-speaking psychologist who has agreed to help some of the children for free.

At Sourp Hagop, principal Kadian says the school doesn’t have any psychologists on staff, but can call on the Armenian Relief Society for help.

At Hay Doun, the non-profit organization that has helped sponsor and settle hundreds of Syrian families over the last 18 months, finding help for traumatized children and adults will be the “challenge of 2016.”

“It’s becoming urgent,” said Hay Doun’s director, Narod Odabasiyan, who is applying for government funding to hire an Armenian-speaking psychologist.

“When children are hiding under their desks every time an airplane flies overhead, you can’t not do anything about it. They need more than a hug.”

The Quebec government does an evaluation of each refugee’s physical and mental health upon their arrival. But even if they speak the language, there are often delays in getting psychological help, Odabasiyan says.

“We need to come closer to helping them and concretely healing those wounds instead of saying ‘It’ll all pass’ and ‘You’re in Canada; you’re safe now.’ These wounds can become real handicaps in two or three years.”

Neither Julie White, with the education ministry, nor the CSMB’s Barbara Blondeau can say what kind of social or psychological help will be available to students integrated into the public school system.

A new chapter

At Sourp Hagop, the students in Yolaine Aroles’s advanced welcome class are reading a story about some friends in the Gaspé peninsula who stumble upon a message in a bottle: “Help!” it says in English.

But, as the story goes, they don’t know who wrote the message, or whether he or she is alive or dead.

“It is a great disappointment,”  one of the students reads aloud in French, stumbling over the word “déception.”

Over the course of the next half hour, the students talk about what it means to be disappointed.

Everyone’s hand shoots up to try to explain the concept.

“They come into this class with nothing, and we function just like a regular class,” explains Aroles, whose boundless energy fills the room, and whose gestures the students love to imitate.

“I love the challenge, to transmit our culture and knowledge. And I see how thirsty they are for this.”

Palig Hamalian, Harout’s sister, moved into Aroles’s class after only a month at the school, and is now taking her turn reading aloud.

She gets stuck on the word “demeure” or home or residence.

But she is coming along, too.

On her first day of school, she ran into Varti – a friend from Aleppo she hadn’t seen in two years.

Now, as she sits at home doing her homework, she is distracted only by the occasional “ding” on a cellphone – a text from Varti, no doubt.

This week, she and her family will finally move off the living-room floor of her aunt Nelly’s house in Laval, and into their own apartment down the street.

One friend gave them a fridge, a washing machine, a kitchen table and chairs. Another friend came up with a stove, a sofa-bed, plates and cups.

Asked what she wants for Christmas, Palig says at the top of her list is her own room – and to paint it all pink.

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